My life as an alt-academic
I learned the term alt-academic (or alt-ac for the trendy) only recently. A colleague told me she wanted to do a book on PhDs who chose not to join “the academy.” In today’s economic climate, university positions for academics with advanced degrees seem more coveted and harder to get than ever. So they seek alt employment.
An Almost Evergreen Topic
The topic is hardly new and continues to be viable. In 2001, the first edition of So What Are You Going to Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla May, PhD, and Maggie Debelius, PhD, was published, and the third edition came out in 2014. Jennifer Polk. PhD, runs the website “From PhD to Life” featuring subscriptions to “Beyond the Professoriate” and “Self-Employed PhDs.” Polk also offers consulting services to doctors making the transition from academe to self-employment.
Rebecca Shuman, PhD, an alt, painfully and hilariously reports on her recent (October 2017-February 2018) attempt to rejoin the academic ranks. Her series in The Chronicle of Higher Education is called “Ice Skating in Hell.” And see the absolute paean of Michael R. Wing, PhD, who left higher education twenty years ago, became a high school teacher, and publishes many articles in scholarly journals.
And just the other day, in my email box popped up an issue of ChronicleVitae with the article by Karen Kelsky, PhD, another alt, titled “Breaking the Alt-Ac News”—to your dissertation chair/advisor.
My Alt-Ac Beginnings
I became an alt-ac by unconscious choice. After earning my PhD from Columbia University in English and Comparative Literature and knowing I wanted to teach, I landed a job as an English professor at a large university. My academic career had launched.
Near the end of the spring semester of my first year, the chair called me into his office. I assumed, blushing expectantly, that he would renew my contract for another three years. After the initial cordialities, he asked what my publishing plans were. Naïf that I was, I didn’t realize this was a trick question. As every academic knows, at universities the only acceptable publications are scholarly articles, read by few, understood by fewer.
I proudly replied that I was indeed planning to publish. His eyebrows raised in approval. Then I added, unknowingly torpedoing myself: “I will publish my short stories.” His eyebrows furrowed. He looked down at the stack of papers on his desk, muttering as if he knew it would never happen, “Well, okay, if you get famous from it.”
He renewed my contract for one more year, mainly because the professor who usually had the horrific 8:00 am freshman English slot got pregnant. My professorship became “terminal.”
If I had any lingering indecision about university teaching, that conference with the chair pushed me over the publishing line. I’d declared to him my promise to myself—to devote more time to writing, my lifelong love, with short stories. And after this two-year stint, I had no stomach or aptitude for university life: departmental politics equal to any corporate power plays, interminable pointless committee meetings, endless single-spaced memos of incomprehensible instructions on how to post grades, students’ ever-inventive sob stories, and closely guarded university letterhead.
So, after final exams in May and my best stab at posting grades, I packed up my few favorite books (publishers’ comp copies), wrapped my little crafts-fair vase carefully in the undergraduate paper, and stole a good handful of letterhead. I didn’t quite know what I’d do to earn money, only that university teaching was no longer for me.
One day at lunch with a friend, as I complained yet again, she pointed out that Columbia was only a few blocks from my apartment, and there were plenty of graduate students in all kinds of majors. I’d survived the doctoral rigors, and, she said reasonably, with my now-considerable knowledge of the graduate school “ropes” I could offer students a valuable service. Her words made sense.
A very good typist (bless my mother for insisting I take a summer course after my high school sophomore year), I decided to specialize in the voluminous and inexplicable formatting rules of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. I created a business card that proclaimed only “Intelligent Typing” with my phone number and trekked through every building and department. I plastered the cards on bulletin boards and with winning smiles handed them to secretaries.
Clients appeared quickly, maybe attracted by the adjective. I tried not to think about my aborted professorial career and self-demotion. And I certainly wasn’t going to tell my mother.
I Get Hooked
Typing, I often became engrossed in the clients’ content. When these nascent academic doctors next visited to pick up their work, I couldn’t help but ask questions: “Do you think Keats was heavily influenced by Paradise Regained?” “How did Heidegger reconcile his sense of Being and his Nazism?” “Does Drucker believe managers can really become leaders?”
My clients began suspecting I wasn’t your average office drone. In turn they started questioning me about their drafts: “Does this follow logically?” “Am I stretching it?” “Do I have enough substantiation?” “Too many citations?” “Am I sticking to a scholarly tone?”
From these exchanges and my forthright responses, they spilled their troubles. Impossible deadlines, menopausal committee members, spouses furious at them for always choosing library over family, and drafts of chapters either ignored by their dissertation chairs for months or endlessly thrown back dripping with blood-red critiques and demands for more explication. Most clients, just before they left my office, wailed, “I’ll never get this degree!”
I found myself unable to ignore their draft torments and outbursts. Empathic and wanting to ease their misery, I gave tentative opinions, suggested little changes, scribbled cautious sample stuffy scholarly phrases in the margins of their drafts, and generally cheered them on. Clients’ faces relaxed, and their cautious smiles showed me I’d reached them. I felt wonderful.
As a result of these informal discussions and clients’ enthusiastic responses, my knowledge and critical abilities grew—exponentially more than from the years of graduate school courses and seminars. Clients welcomed my interest like a lifeline in a tidal wave. I gradually phased out of typing and into academic coaching, consulting, and editing.
Becoming a Full-Fledged Alt Ac
Once I got over my rue at sliding from professor to typist, I saw the significant advantages of self-employment: greater autonomy, flexibility, freedom, and no power jockeying or committee meetings. I could now make my own hours for seeing clients and completing their projects. And I could write more, in the house or at the coffee shop.
I began to publish, not only short stories but essays, poems, and writing craft articles. My business developed into one of helping adults reach their academic goals. I published one book on the pursuit of life dreams, academic and otherwise, and, a few years later, another for doctoral candidates on navigating the dissertation tempests.
For many years now, I’ve guided clients to choose, plan, outline, write, edit, and deal with the many vicissitudes and unpleasant, often unforeseen, events of university life. (Only if you’ve experienced a doctoral program, or have lived with someone who has, can you know the drama, disappointments, defeats, discouragements, disasters, dashed hopes, despair, and eviscerated egos of doctoral candidates.)
My knowledge has grown beyond literature and the requisite rubric-bound subheads that every dissertation must display. Specializing in education, the social sciences, and nursing, I’ve learned much about many fields and even, from one candidate’s data collection, how to read an Excel printout.
I’ve also learned to handle client close-mouthed depressions and sabotages of our work together, coaxing them to vent their hopelessness at the apparent slow progress. I’ve handled blowups when they’ve vented their frustrations on me. One night at 11:30, after I’d sent a client my edited manuscript, replete with questions about his methods and conclusions, he called in fury and blasted me about my “unfair tough” standards. Eventually, when I pointed out that his work would gain in precision and scholarship from the requested changes, he calmed down.
From these and many other skirmishes, I’ve also learned (and continue to learn) interpersonal skills, unambiguous communication, patience, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness. I’ve also had to remind myself frequently that however clients act, they do so out of a desperation to finally finish the damn thing and have the last laugh on all their relatives, friends, and grade-school teachers.
As clients finally obtain their degrees, resurrect their egos from the subbasement, and start aiming for their next life longings, their needs multiply. To meet them, I’ve enlarged my skills and counsel them on academic publishing, grant writing, career moves, publicity, and more. Some clients even dare to test another of their dreams, and I shepherd them to completion and publication of fiction and nonfiction.
I’ve found too that I like the dissertations—both the in-depth explorations and clients’ passions to contribute in their fields. I feel it a calling (not to get too mawkish) to help these earnest almost-doctors create the most high-quality work possible. Bad dissertations, even expensively bound with gold-embossed titles, are legion. I cringe at those in library and ProQuest databases, even from highly regarded universities.
It’s a personal challenge for me (and a tribute to my own doctoral professors, who were abnormally supportive) to help clients produce great dissertations they can then use, if they choose, to climb the academic beanstalk for college teaching appointments, future scholarly publications, books, and professional presentations. Some clients, having reached what is often a lifelong dream, remain content to bury their dissertations in the databases or bravely strike out into consulting.
My friend who suggested that I type dissertations probably still doesn’t know the value of her idea, although I’ve told her in maudlin expressions over too many glasses of wine. I’ll always be grateful to her for steering me to the alt-ac life.
And my former chair? When my first book came out, I sent him a signed copy and gracious note. He never responded, but I heard that, a few years after I left, he edited and published a collection of others’ short stories.
© 2018 Noelle Sterne
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011).
For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site: www.trustyourlifenow.com
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.